Leading creative teams

What makes a successful leader in creative disciplines like software delivery? This is a topic that has been written about innumerable times. Leading teams of people, especially in creative disciplines, is complex. There are no recipes. The makeup of the team and the context of the work create unique situations that require context-dependent approaches. Nevertheless, we see patterns of failure and patterns of success emerge.

A little over 10 years ago when I was at Rational Software Corporation, we ran dozens of leadership workshops with a worldwide team of software sales and technical managers. Here is a summary of some recurring characteristics of leaders who were viewed as standout managers in our domain. It is worth reflecting on for anyone involved in managing creative people or engineering teams.

  • Mutual respect and trust
  • Hiring the right people
  • Building the right teams
  • Effectively deals with performance issues
  • Decisions balanced with consensus
  • Practice what you preach (actions speak louder than words)
  • Internalize the plan or business model
  • Communicates memorably, concisely, accurately
  • Honest communication conduit to/from other teams
  • Recognizing patterns of success and failure
  • Personally adding value

Note that all of the behaviors above are hard to teach and generally characteristics that people are innately qualified, or not. In my last decade at IBM, and in my consulting opportunities all over the world in software organizations attempting to measurably improve their business outcomes, this observation has become even more clear.

The primary lesson that I have learned is that selecting the right people for management roles is much more important than the quality of your management training.

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